Over at dieoff.org, our goods friends are making much of the fact that up till 1979 there was a gradual increase in per capita energy production and then a decline for the first time in history.
In fact, this is not the case.
The first time in history there was a decline in per capita energy production was in the early middle ages just prior to the great plague. Europe's forests had been depleted and the cost of wood had soared. This was eventually overcome by the industrial revolution and the use of coal as a replacement for wood. During the transition period, however, there was some suffering and the global economy went through hard times.
It's likely that this time the coming decline in oil will be met by alternatives in both energy sources and substitutes at the end-use stage such as in electric transportation.
Returning to the point about declining world per capita from about 1979 (according to dieoff.org), the facts check out. On a global basis, there has in fact been a global decline in per capita energy production.
Taken at face value that sounds like it might be an "oh shit what do we do now moment".
I'm a natural cynic, however, so first I'd like to ask a couple of questions before I hope on over to LATOC to buy some ammo and some MREs and hunker down for the zombie apocalypse
While the global average has gone down, is the distribution of the decline uniform or is it uneven?
Even if it turns out that the distribution of the decline is uniform, does that mean due to diminishing energy production per capita, we now have less stuff per capita than the 1980s?
Well a quick and easy search from our friend google shows us that in answer to the first question the decline is not in fact uniform. Most of the decline is due to a flattening out of the world demand profile. We have added two billion people in the third world while the rich world (North America, Europe, Japan etc) have increased barely. The population of the United States has increased about fifty million while the population of Europe and Japan have declined slightly.
It's interesting to note that the rich world countries have dropped their per capita oil usage by around 10% on average. So I guess we must be doomed, huh?
The biggest energy hogs have been the OPEC countries and China, of which both regions have more than doubled their average per capita energy consumption.
So I guess they must be less doomed than us, right?
OK so how about the second question?
If we in the rich world and they in the third world are using less energy per capita does that mean we have less stuff because of less energy. i.e. less food, less big screen TVs, less cars, etc etc
Well as it happens the data are conflicting.
The two billion people added to the third world do in fact have less stuff. They have less food than they had before and their position is worse. Maybe they're overpopulated.
In the rich world, however, things are different. Though the per capita energy usage has declined on average (very slightly in the US, close to 10% in Europe and a little more in Japan), has the average amount of stuff gone up per capita in those three regions since 1979?
Why yes it has. All three regions are suffering from an obesity epidemic with the average per capita calory intake going from 2500 in the 1970s to 3500 today.
Likewise, the GDP of all three regions has increased massively. More than doubled in fact.
But how can this be?
The answer is efficiency.
In all three regions, the amount of energy used per unit of GDP has declined substantially. The Japanese are the most efficient, the Europeans next and the North Americans last.
What does that mean?
It means that energy belts can be tightened and the economy can grow even while the net energy per capita is declining. This is particularly true in North America where we still drive enormous vehicles with ridiculously low miles per gallon for fuel consumption.